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Sorry, Wrong Number,Sorry, Wrong Number

The Big Idea Behind SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

Sorry, Wrong Number began as a 22-minute radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. The story of a neurotic invalid wife who overhears two men planning her murder via crossed phone wires on the phone had been inspired by an incident in Fletcher's own life when she encountered a shrill, quarrelsome woman waiting in line at her local pharmacy. Fletcher thought that this type of woman would make an interesting character, especially if she was placed in extreme danger.

The radio play of Sorry, Wrong Number was first broadcast in 1943 on the Suspense radio program and starred Agnes Moorehead as the terrified bed-ridden wife. The radio play proved so popular that Moorehead's recording of it was rebroadcast every year for the next ten years.

In 1947 producer Hal Wallis bought the rights to the radio drama with plans to make it at Paramount. He asked Lucille Fletcher, the play's author, to write a screenplay expanding her 22-minute drama into a feature length film. The challenge for Fletcher was in opening the play up and fleshing out some new supporting characters. Another challenge was figuring out how to sustain a high level of suspense for a full 90 minutes.

Fletcher wrote scenes for new outdoor locations and expanded the film's backstory in the form of flashbacks, which occasionally became flashbacks within flashbacks. She also created the character of Sally Lord (played by Ann Richards in the film), who is the film's only sympathetic character. "This ordinary woman, living with her baby in a cramped apartment," said Hal Wallis in his autobiography Starmaker, "was necessary as a counterpoint to the wealthy Leona in her mansion on Sutton Place."

Fletcher's completed script was initially rejected by Hollywood's Production Code Administration because of its depiction of illegal drug trafficking, which Fletcher had to tone down. The PCA also objected to the suggestion that the murderous husband would escape prosecution, and a scene in which a doctor suggests divorce as a solution to the marital problems between the Stevensons. With some significant revisions to address these issues, the PCA was satisfied and the project was approved.

Director Anatole Litvak (All This, and Heaven Too [1940], Out of the Fog [1941]) was tapped by Hal Wallis to direct.

When it came time to cast the film, it seemed a logical choice for Agnes Moorehead to reprise the role of Leona that she had originated. Moorehead was a highly respected actress on both radio and film, having earned Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actress for her work in two films just prior to Sorry, Wrong Number: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Mrs. Parkington (1944). However, Moorehead was considered primarily a character actress and not a leading lady, and in the end she lost the role to Barbara Stanwyck, an established star and leading lady.

Casting the part of Leona's henpecked husband, Henry, proved trickier. Henry's role had been increased significantly from the radio play, and when Burt Lancaster heard his friend Hal Wallis describe it, he became interested. Wallis, however, thought that Lancaster was too forceful a screen presence to be believable as the spineless Henry and told him so. Instead, Wallis thought of Lee Bowman, an actor whose specialty was weak characters. Bowman, however, was unavailable for the role so Lancaster lobbied for it and told Wallis that audiences would be interested in watching him - a physically powerful man- get beaten down. "That's the whole idea," he told Wallis, "a strong-looking boy on the threshold of life allows a woman to buy him and then suffers for it, and all of his character has been drained out of him. And at the beginning of the film, they'll believe I'm strong, and the contrast will make for real dramatic excitement." Wallis gave in, and Lancaster got the role.

by Andrea Passafiume

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